Rheumatic Fever Medication

Updated: Mar 23, 2021
  • Author: Mark R Wallace, MD, FACP, FIDSA; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
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Class Summary

Antibiotic treatment in patients who present with acute rheumatic fever (ARF) is necessary irrespective of the throat culture result. Such therapy probably does not alter the risk of developing rheumatic heart disease but at least minimizes the possible transmission of the responsible streptococcal strain. [1]

Primary prophylaxis (treatment of streptococcal pharyngitis) dramatically reduces the risk of ARF and should be provided whenever a group A streptococcal pharyngitis is confirmed. In areas where streptococcal pyoderma has been implicated as a cause of rheumatic fever, such therapy should be also be employed.Treatment of pharyngitis (or pyoderma) without proof of group A streptococcal etiology may be reasonable in areas of high endemicity. [29]

Although definitive evidence to support the practice is lacking, [29] secondary prevention is recommended to prevent additional streptococcal infections and is believed by most experts to be a critical step in management of ARF. Patients with a history of rheumatic fever are at a high risk of recurrent ARF, which may further the cardiac damage. The exact duration of chronic antimicrobial prophylaxis remains controversial, but the WHO guidelines are commonly used. [1] There had been concern that sustained benzathine penicillin as secondary prophylaxis would lead to the development of resistant strains of Streptococcus viridans, but a  2008 study found no support for this hypothesis. [41]

Rheumatic fever with carditis and clinically significant residual heart disease requires antibiotic treatment for a minimum of 10 years after the latest episode; prophylaxis is required until the patient is aged at least 40-45 years and is sometimes continued for life.

Rheumatic fever with carditis and no residual heart disease aside from mild mitral regurgitation requires antibiotic treatment for 10 years or until age 25 years (whichever is longer).

Rheumatic fever without carditis requires antibiotic treatment for 5 years or until the patient is aged 18-21 years (whichever is longer).

Children given penicillin G benzathine at a dose of 1.2 million U IM q4wk experienced a recurrence rate of 0.4 cases per 100 patient-years of observation. ARF recurrence rates have been found to be even lower if penicillin is administered q3wk instead of q4wk. This regimen may be appropriate in patients with severe rheumatic heart disease. Weigh the benefits of a 3-week regimen against patient compliance and cost; compliance is often poor to start with, at least partially due to the pain of the injections. [19] Long-term administration of oral penicillin may be used in lieu of the intramuscular route. Erythromycin or sulfadiazine may be used in patients who are allergic to penicillin. [1, 6]

Penicillin G benzathine (Bicillin L-A)

Long-acting depot form of penicillin G. DOC for prophylaxis of streptococcal pharyngitis. Avoids compliance problems of oral regimens.

Penicillin VK (Beepen-VK, Betapen-VK, Pen-Vee K, Robicillin VK, V-Cillin K)

Phenoxymethyl derivative of penicillin G is acid-stable, enhancing oral bioavailability. Patient compliance is essential for effectiveness.

Erythromycin (E.E.S., E-Mycin, Eryc, Ery-Tab, Erythrocin, E-Mycin)

Macrolides inhibit protein synthesis, in contrast to penicillin cell wall effects. DOC for primary treatment of streptococcal pharyngitis in penicillin allergy. May use for secondary prophylaxis in patients allergic to penicillin.

Sulfadiazine (Microsulfon)

Exerts bacteriostatic action through competitive antagonism with para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA). Microorganisms that require exogenous folic acid and do not synthesize folic acid are not susceptible to the action of sulfonamides. Used in secondary prophylaxis of ARF.


Anti-inflammatory agents

Class Summary

Salicylates and corticosteroids are the mainstay of the anti-inflammatory treatment of ARF. Other nonsteroidal agents (ibuprofen,naprosyn) are likely about as good as aspirin and maybe preferable in children [38] .Avoid anti-inflammatory drugs until diagnosis is confirmed, as they may mask symptoms essential to the diagnosis. Analgesics without anti-inflammatory properties (ie, codeine) are used for mild disease. Corticosteroids and salicylates cannot prevent or modify the development of subsequent rheumatic heart disease but are used for symptomatic relief. Some experts believe steroids are of value in patients with severe or fulminant carditis, but data are sparse. [6, 29]

Clinical or laboratory manifestations of rheumatic inflammation may recur upon cessation of anti-inflammatory therapy. Rebound occurs frequently with corticosteroids; hence, they require gradual tapering rather than abrupt cessation. Nonsteroidal agents are usually continued for a month following corticosteroid discontinuance.

Aspirin (Anacin, Ascriptin, Bayer Aspirin, Bayer Buffered Aspirin)

Used in patients with moderate-to-severe arthritis and carditis without heart failure. Treatment is administered for at least 8 wk.

Prednisone (Deltasone, Liquid-Pred, Meticorten, Orasone, Sterapred)

Used in severe carditis and CHF. High-dose prednisone is administered for 2-3 wk, then tapered over 3 wk. IV corticosteroids are reserved for fulminant cases.